So, remember all that Nietzsche stuff about “shame culture’ and “guilt culture”? It’s time to get back on the philosophy horse, because it explains so much.
Last week on Twitter I linked to an interesting piece of research from the University of Maryland and Harvard University. The project looked at how someone was judged following a well publicized transgression. Somewhat to the surprise of the researchers, a person who had a reputation for doing good work was not given any slack. Indeed, he was probably treated more harshly than someone with no public profile at all. The key to escaping blame for transgressions, it appears, is presenting yourself as a victim.
Now we should know this. We see it every day in the blogosphere. That’s why we keep getting the unedifying spectacle of straight white male Christian conservatives complaining about how horribly they are being discriminated against. Everyone understands that if you can present yourself as a victim then people will feel sorry for you. But what exactly is happening here?
On Friday I had one of those light bulb moments. The whole victim politics thing is driven by confusion between shame culture and guilt culture. I can’t speak for people from other cultures, but those of us with a Western European ancestry (and that includes you, white America) have a history that mixes the two ideas. Back in ancient times we tended to blame “the Gods” for our misfortunes. Then the people who ran Christianity twigged that they would have a very good means of social control if they switched to a system in which misfortune was a divine punishment for sin, so we got deep into guilt culture. Now we are working our way out of it, but subconsciously we still make decisions as to which system to apply.
So if we see a high profile, competent person accused of some transgression we recognize that person as responsible for his own actions and we apply guilt culture rules. If, on the other hand, that person can somehow present himself as a victim of circumstances rather than responsible and empowered, then shame culture applies and we are more likely to forgive.
It isn’t always clear cut, of course. A woman who is attacked will generally be seen as a victim, unless she was sexually assaulted in which case the whole thing suddenly becomes her fault. That’s because men like to see themselves as the victims of women’s sexual attractiveness, and other women can be jealous of anyone more attractive than they are.
It doesn’t help, of course, that we are all victims in our own minds. But where others are concerned it seems that we tend to make snap judgments based on the perceived status and power of the transgressor, not on the circumstances of the case.
And on Saturday it occurred to me, while listening to Paul McAuley talk about the social systems he devised for the outer planet colonies in The Quiet War, that this whole thing is a fatal flaw in kudos-based societies.
Kudos, or Whuffie as Cory Doctorow termed it, is the idea that status and wealth in a society should be based on what you do, not on how much money you have. It is an idea that occurs a lot in science fiction, and to appeals strongly to engineers and the like. I have always felt it was a really bad idea because a system that bases wealth on how well liked you are would soon be taken over by people with lots of charisma and skill at social manipulation. If you don’t believe me, check out Sunday’s Dilbert cartoon for proof.
However, the things I have been talking about above blow an even bigger hole in the idea of a Kudos-based society, because what the research is telling us is that the more Kudos you have, the more vulnerable you are to losing everything. In a money-based society, if you are caught doing something bad, at least you still have your money (especially if you can afford good lawyers). But in a reputation-based economy, the greater your “wealth”, the more you will lose if you transgress. There are, of course, certain advantages to this from the point of view of equality, but it would make the system very unstable and, I think, would result in a lot of people devoting an awful lot of time to finding ways of bringing down high status folk, much as tabloid newspapers do today.
Of course no method of social organization is perfect, and money-based societies have plenty of problems of their own. But while we are still monkeys and tend to have this knee-jerk negative view of anyone who appears competent I suspect that Kudos-based societies are doomed to failure.